It’s my belief that the thought process mentioned above is a seriously flawed notion that many people may hold. And understand, what I’m going to say below goes against many of the nice quotes you’ll read from most top athletes who describe their abilities. This article will inevitably ruffle some feathers because many who hold the traditional view of “natural talent” can’t conceive of the fact that another Messi can be developed. The narrative used to be that there would never be another footballer to come close to Pele’s ability. Then the narrative became Pele and Maradonna. Soon it became “No one will touch the ability of Pele, Maradonna, or Zidane.” Today we have to add Messi to the list, which for all intents and purposes, only had room for one name decades ago. Believing in the idea of “natural talent” that we’re born with, and can’t work towards, is catastrophic for any of us to believe because of the message it transmits at the younger levels of development.
Whenever most athletes describe their own feats or the ability of another “worldly” superstar, usually the talk of natural ability, god given talent, or a knack for scoring (or defending, or coming up in the clutch, etc) always comes into play. While my profession sees me involved with soccer, I do like to study coaches and athletes in different sports, and one of my favorite athletes to study is Ray Allen. See, Ray Allen, for many, has a god-given jump shot. That idea itself was presented to Ray one night, and his response is something I’ll never forget. When a reporter asked Allen to describe his god-given ability to shoot three-point shots, here’s what he had to say:
An insult. God could care less whether I can shoot a jump shot. I’ve argued with a lot of people in my life. When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day. Not some days. Every day.
Something important to understand first. People are born with certain “limits” or “opportunities,” to an extent. A man who will only ever grow to 4’5 may not be able to play in the NBA. Likewise, a person who will grow to 6’8 may not make a good jockey. There are some things we are born with, no one can doubt that. There are certain physical features we can’t change. But the ability to score goals, or know how to get past defenders with ease, or even save shots at will, is not something we’re born with. It is something that is worked on constantly, year by year.
Everyone who describes Messi talks about his natural talent. Inzaghi says that “No one is born with the talent that Lionel Messi has.” Gerard Pique describes Messi as more “naturally talented” than another world class player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Interestingly enough, Messi has a different take. When he describes how he came to be the greatest player in the world, here’s what he had to say:
You have to fight to reach your dream. You have to sacrifice and work hard for it. I always thought I wanted to play professionally, and I always knew that to do that I’d have to make a lot of sacrifices. I made sacrifices by leaving Argentina, leaving my family to start a new life. I changed my friends, my people. Everything. But everything I did, I did for football, to achieve my dream.
Let’s take Thierry Henry as I’m biased. How many goals do you think Thierry Henry has scored during practice? Go back even further, how many goals did he score when he was growing up playing with his friends day in and day out. Thousands of goals would be a conservative estimate! I don’t believe I’m wrong in saying that Thierry Henry has scored hundreds of goals in almost any conceivable scenario whether in training, matches, or just games in the park. The quote from Aristotle is correct in that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Thierry Henry was not born a goalscorer. Thierry Henry became a natural goalscorer through thousands of hours of practice. With the amount of concentrated practice he put in, scoring became instinctual, and it inevitably became second nature. We often see players who are the finished product, but what we don’t see is the thousands of hours it took to become that finished product. As Messi once said, “It took me 17 years and 114 days to become an overnight success.” Read that again and let that sink in.
Another good example is David Beckham. Everyone lauds David Beckham’s ability to play a beautiful ball across the field, among other things. Who can forget Beckham’s goal from midfield against Wimbledon? This, most assumed, was just another reason that Beckham was from a different planet, born with a magic foot that could put the ball anywhere he wanted. The miracle becomes much more boring to some when you hear Beckham’s teammates talk about how he spent hours upon hours practicing that exact shot.
Is there such a thing as a natural goalscorer? Sure, but it should be renamed to the thousands of hours spent training natural goalscorer. I guess that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely. When players spend thousands of hours honing their skills, certain things become instinctive and natural to them. Habits are created through automation, through structured training and also environments where street play or free play is allowed. Barcelona is a great example of a club who work on choreography with their movements. Are Xavi and Iniesta just natural pass-and-move masters? Of course not. They spent countless hours at training, from the academy to the first team, where hundreds of scenarios were choreographed. Perhaps even more importantly, they spent thousands of hours playing and practicing on their own. This allowed for them to be able to read the game instinctively(read: after thousands of hours spent training and playing) and play at a speed that people thought impossible to recreate.
The best players are creatures of habit. But they aren’t born with that habit. By training and accounting for every possible scenario, the application in the games looks effortless. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. When athletes are at a loss for words as to how they scored the fantastic goal, or threaded the pass through the defense, talk inevitably turns to a knack for passing or finishing but that’s simply because its instinctive to them. Remember, instinctive in this case is something intensively worked on.
It’s very tough for people, especially with the traditional fixed mindset, to think that it’s possible for other people to become a top, top player. I’ll forgive you if I can’t change your opinion, but I can’t forgive you if you spread the same ideas towards the youth.
Carol Dweck is someone I recommend everyone get familiar with. Famous for her critical work on mindset and attitude, Dweck will help explain here how believing in “the natural goalscorer” is detrimental to youth development on the whole. When I say natural goalscorer, it can be substituted for any action or position within the game. For our purposes though, we’ll stick to the popular “natural goalscorer” notion.
I won’t do Dweck proper justice, but I’ll do my best. I suggest you read up on her work, especially her brilliant book entitled Mindset. One of Dr. Dweck’s most famous experiments involved fifth grade students. In the scenario, the students were all given several problems to solve, and after the children finished solving the problems, the teacher praised the students. Half of the group was told that “You must be smart at these problems” while the other half was told “You must have worked hard at these problems.” The entire group was then presented with another set of problems, but this time they were given a choice. They could choose from an easier problem set where success was all but assured, or a challenging problem set where there was no guarantee for success.
So what happened? The group that was praised for intelligence mostly chose the easier problem set, whereas the group that was praised for effort mostly chose the harder problem set. Those who based their success on their “natural intelligence” were afraid that if they weren’t able to succeed with the new challenge, they would be seen as not intelligent anymore. Those praised on effort came in with an understanding that hard work could translate into tangible results, therefore they wanted the tougher challenge so they could work as hard as possible on the new problems.
The children were then given another problem set, this time more challenging than the first. The group praised for their intelligence quickly lost confidence in their ability, and perhaps more important, their enjoyment of the activity as they began to struggle with the problems. They had been praised on success based on their inherent intelligence. Therefore if succeeding meant they were intelligent, struggling had the opposite effect on them. Struggling, for these children, meant they were not smart at all. The group praised for their effort, on the whole, remained confident and eager throughout this new problem.
Hopefully you’re still keeping with this story, and beginning to see the light-bulb flash in your own head. Two scenarios left for the class that are important to talk about. When the class was given the same problem set as from the beginning of the class, the “intelligence” group actually received lower scores than they had when they first went through. Their confidence was lost because of the stumbling and struggling they encountered when they were challenged. The “effort” group saw their scores mostly increase! Finally, when the students were asked to anonymously report their scores, almost forty percent of the “intelligence” group lied about their scores. Around ten percent of the “effort” group lied about their scores.
Wow. Growth Mindset or Fixed Mindset. Which one are you?
I remember the first time I read Dweck and immediately my attention turned to the language used with children and adults not only in the classroom but also on the field. Imagine now that you have a ten year old boy or girl who loves soccer. They play as a striker, and thanks to the fact that they’ve played since the age of four or five, they’ve become relatively good given the competition they face. They have found success at the eight, nine, and ten year old levels. They’re constantly praised for being a “natural goalscorer.” “They know how to score goals with ease, and they’re always in the right place at the right time.” “They’re important for their team because since they’re the best, the team will win.” Now the child turns eleven, and because of the teams success they are promoted into a higher division with a higher quality of play and competition. What happens now when the child doesn’t score three goals a game each game? Is he a fraud? Has he lost his “natural ability?” Of course not, this is simply called life and it’s an important challenge presented to the child for the betterment of his playing ability. But the psychological implications are catastrophic, as the child now begins to dislike the game, because they’re struggling. They begin to dislike practice because they assume that scoring goals should come easily after one practice session, because that’s what always happened. They may even, to borrow a popular word in today’s world of youth development, burn out. All because of our choice of language.
You might think Messi was born with his ability, but please, don’t tell that to your child. Let’s praise effort, always. Praise hard work, praise a positive attitude and a desire to compete, and above all praise your child’s ability to try their best. Explain to them that if they want to get better they need to play on their own, practice on their own, and that one training session a week for one hour will not turn them into world-beaters. A coach is there to provide some important aspects of development within the context of the team and the game, but just as important is the countless hours of free play that are necessary for the child to understand that success is a long journey. Practice is important with the coach, because in many cases they are there to teach skills and ideas that the young player may not be able to find on their own. But the practice outside the practice field is where Messi became Messi. Just as important, the environment that Messi found himself in at a young age was also critical for his development. That, however, is a topic that deserves its own article!
Muhammad Ali is one of my favorite athletes to study. Here was a man that many think was born for boxing, yet that story couldn’t be further from the truth. Ali was not spotted originally as a “natural boxer.” He didn’t have the build of the preconceived notions of a champion boxer, nor did he have a “champions fists.” Ali was identified as a scrappy man who was a hard working scrambler. For those with a fixed mindset, potential is easy to judge. You can examine the ability of a young soccer player or boxer and then forecast his future from that. If you have “talent” now then you’ll be talented later. But the reality is that potential and talent identification are much more difficult. A child with talent now may not reach the peaks expected of him or her.
Likewise, a young boy might show up without any “natural” boxing ability. With hard work, determination, and a will to improve and compete, he might just go on to become the greatest boxer in the history of the sport.
Cassius Clay was born into this world. Muhammad Ali was developed and worked on through thousands of hours. That’s the difference.
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